Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

The graphs of destruction

Jerry Stratton, September 11, 2011

The Mirror, October 10, 2001

This looks like a science fiction magazine from the fifties.

Over on the Ace of Spades HQ, ArthurK mentions the technological singularity in passing as a way to talk about the social singularity on 9/11. He posts a newspaper front page from a month after 9/11 that would, to some pre-9/11 coma victim, look like a science fiction magazine.

The technological singularity is, basically, technology that advances so rapidly that we can’t recognize what’s on the other side. The technological singularity intersects with Arthur’s social singularity. Every year it is easier to kill more people: every year it is easier to make more advanced and powerful things—including things that can be used for attacks that will kill millions.

Imagine a graph along the years with two lines on it: “the resources necessary to kill millions” and “the resources of people who want to kill millions”. The lines haven’t normally crossed. The kind of person who wants to commit attacks of mass destruction doesn’t have much in the way of resources1.

The problem is that the line for “resources necessary” is dropping. It will eventually drop below the “resources of” line, at which point we’re screwed, and bad. In some cases the line is already dangerously close. We have to watch it not just in areas like “resources necessary to build a nuclear weapon” or “resources necessary to create a supervirus” but also in areas we don’t even foresee as killing areas. It isn’t just that it’s easier to make nuclear weapons or biological weapons. The cheapness of computers made flight simulators cheap, which increased the availability of flight training. It became cheaper to learn to fly airliners, and class sizes became large enough that instructors didn’t necessarily know every student.

That kind of sub-singularity is, by definition, very difficult to predict. Even people who foresaw planes used as attack modes, such as Rick Rescorla of Morgan Stanley, expected a more traditional attack, such as in Rescorla’s case a smaller plane filled with explosives. But that’s commonplace and catchable. The FBI was already on to the 1993 World Trade Center bombers before the bombing, they just failed to stop it in time. Someone acquiring enough explosives to fill a plane to do the damage that the September 11 attacks did would probably have come up on the FBI’s radar, too. What didn’t come up on their radar was that one of the graphs of destruction had dropped to the point where it was easy enough to learn to fly an airliner that suicide bombers could do it2.

We are never going to stop the “resources necessary” graph from falling. Every year it will become easier to destroy a city. Easier to build a nuclear explosive, to create a deadly organism, to control critical infrastructure remotely, or to do other things we haven’t even thought of yet. There is no way to stop this line from dropping: it’s hand-in-hand with advancing technology. If we stop technology today, we die. We’re not going to kill the Internet. We’re not going to kill cell phones.3 Computers will advance, and we are not going back to gaming on the Atari 2600.

This is not an easy problem. The only “solution” is to find a way to ensure that no one wants to destroy a city, that no one wants to kill millions. Because eventually it will only take one person to do it. That’s the inevitability of the “resources necessary” line. Right now all we can really hope is that along with the advancement of technology and the march of society we will also discover a means to ensure that no one wants that level of destruction.

Until then, we need to avoid actions that increase the “resources of” line. Currently, we do increase the resources of people who might want to kill millions. We put money into the hands of criminal organizations, and we create industries that can be easily leveraged by people who are outside of the law. We can buy time by ending these dangerous policies.

The easiest to manage contributor to the rise of wealth among the terrorist criminal class is prohibition. We know that the Taliban partners with opium farmers in Afghanistan, and Hezbollah is already partnering with drug organizations in Mexico. End prohibition and those funding sources disappear. The more successfully we enforce prohibition, the more money these terrorists make. Step 1 to buying time is to end dangerous policies such as prohibition that increase the resources of criminals.

Step 2 is crowdsourcing. People should be encouraged to react to the things that happen to them. If standard policy in the United States had been for passengers to resist hijackings, the terrorists would never have bothered to go to the trouble of hijacking airliners. This doesn’t end the threat, but it does reduce the viability of the easiest threats, thus raising the amount of resources necessary. Personal responsibility is somewhat of a dirty phrase, but it’s necessary. People in general need to know that they are expected to defend themselves when attacked, that defending themselves is the right thing to do.

But not just self-defense but also acting when something out of the ordinary or odd happens. Terrorists don’t have the resources to maintain the kind of secrecy necessary to pull of their attacks. They need to be ignored when they violate the normal standards of behavior. The 9/11 hijackers, for example, needed to be ignored when they “focused on learning to control the aircraft in flight but took no interest in takeoffs or landings”. They needed to be ignored by the people they came in contact with, and if anyone became suspicious enough to report the oddity, they needed to be ignored by investigators.

Both of those steps could buy us time to figure out the real problem. But they both require a greater respect for the ability of members of the general public to make decisions. Mostly what politicians try to do is pass laws against doing things that anybody willing to do them won’t follow. Laws prevent crime by putting criminals in jail after they have already committed their first crime. For crimes that can kill thousands or millions of people, anyone with the desire and wherewithal to commit the crime isn’t going to change their mind because it’s against the law.

In response to To the ends of the earth: Why don’t we see any evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence? And will we survive long enough to make ourselves known to the universe?

  1. Or they also have resources they’d like to protect from retaliation—the government of a country, for example, doesn’t want its country targeted. In some places this breaks down–the Palestinians who are lobbing missiles at Israel, for example, don’t care about Palestinian resources.

  2. “It’s an absolute possibility that (the terrorists) went out and rented a simulator and practiced running into the World Trade Center. What we used to do when we had a couple of spare minutes in our training session, we’d aim the airplane between the towers, or under the Golden Gate Bridge,” a former commercial pilot said. “San Francisco, London, L.A. and Hong Kong—they’re all replicated.”

  3. Except by replacing them with something even more amazing.

  1. California arson ->